Mathematics teaching has changed dramatically since Geof started his teaching career 35 years ago. He is now pioneering the training of mathematics teachers at Teach First and is at the forefront of the challenges and opportunities in the sector.
Geof began his teaching career at a secondary school in the south of England. Here he met his future wife, also a mathematics teacher, and a few years later they found themselves competing for the same Head of Department role in Yorkshire. Their marriage withstood the competition, and they were both thrown into very different but equally demanding and very rewarding teaching environments. “It was the first time I was hit by a child, first time I was sworn at by a child, first time I was threatened by a parent. But it was an incredibly rewarding place to work. By significantly improving the mathematics GCSE outcomes we were giving the young people real choices at 16 in terms of education, training, employment, and overall life chances.” The school was later featured in the ‘Educating Yorkshire’ TV series which laid bare the challenges.
Geof’s teaching career progressed into senior leadership, then into Initial Teacher Education, but in 2019 his passion for mathematics drew him to Teach First as the Mathematics Lead for the pilot ‘Time to Teach’ programme. This focused on career changers and prepared the ground for Teach First’s first Training Programme cohort where the subject curriculum was planned and delivered “in-house”. When Geof was considering applying to be the first Head of Mathematics at Teach First he initially hesitated, thinking that perhaps he should be back in the classroom, but he realised he could reach more pupils in the Teach First role “as PGCE Course Leader at Bradford College University Centre I trained about 20 trainees a year who would go onto teach around 200 pupils each a year, so it was a total reach of 4,000 pupils. Whereas here at Teach First, with around 200 mathematics trainees a year, I could be impacting around 40,000 children. That’s a huge responsibility but incredibly exciting.”
Geof designs the curriculum for trainee mathematics teachers and works with the team who delivers the materials so that he can see it in action. “Teach First is moving towards being a more subject-focussed organisation. This will result in a more consistent and responsive experience for our trainees and ensures that their training best prepares them for teaching in the schools that need them most. It also means we can now design subject-based materials for all our programmes, not just the Training Programme.”
Mathematics teaching is hitting a crisis point in the UK, due in part to the serious decline in STEM graduates joining the teaching profession. The demand for STEM graduates has become increasingly high in finance, technology and programming which offer more competitive salaries. Geof believes that “the single most important thing we can do is train future mathematics leaders.”
Another fundamental problem that Geof highlights is that “Britain is the only country in the world where being bad at mathematics is somehow okay. This is simply not the case in Europe, America and Asia. It is not unusual for trainees to experience parents at a Parents’ Evening telling them they couldn’t do mathematics at school – almost like a badge of honour. We need to challenge this at every opportunity”. Regarding the U.K.’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s recently stated ambition for all pupils in England to study mathematics up to the age of 18,” he says “he is right, but he is thinking 10 steps ahead. You never make one curriculum change on its own because it has a rippling effect, so it means if students are studying mathematics, they will be studying less of another subject. And of course, we would need more mathematics teachers to teach these extra mathematics lessons. What young people need is functional mathematics that includes understanding of datasets, graphs, trends and, increasingly, very large numbers.”
In response to these challenges, Teach First are recruiting and training graduates who may not have a mathematics degree. For example, a student with Mathematics A Level and a Geography degree could be recruited to train as a mathematics teacher. This may help too with what Geof describes as the “Curse of Knowledge”. He explains “this is the idea that if you know something it is extremely difficult to think about it from the perspective of someone who does not know it. Which means it can be difficult to understand why a pupil doesn’t understand a mathematical concept that the teacher knows well and therefore thinks is obvious or straightforward. Mathematics has often been taught as a process with little explanation or understanding of why the process works. Our curriculum is designed to ensure our trainees teach the why as well as the how.”
The role of philanthropy in education is more important than ever. “Teach First runs primarily on DfE contracts but understandably the funding of these is getting tighter. Additional funding streams allow us to go above and beyond the DfE contracts and support additional programmes, such as Leading Together, which supports leadership teams to dismantle the barriers that are preventing their pupils from achieving their best. Ultimately, these independent funding streams enable us to be responsive while remaining creative and hopefully more effective.”
The Huo Family Foundation is giving £1,500,000 over three years to support Teach First’s recruitment of STEM teachers and developing future Headteachers.